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The Wave of Illegal Alien Children and MS-13 Recruitment

Written by Joseph J. Kolb .

Mara Salvatrucha

The implications of the exponential flood of more than 66,127 unaccompanied children recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol by the end of August 20141 and counting, entering the United States over the past year from the Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, presented the country with what President Barack Obama proclaimed in June as an "urgent humanitarian situation,"2 prompting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish an interagency Uniformed Coordination Group that included federal, state, and local entities.3 Consequently, neither the Department of Homeland Security, municipal law enforcement, social, or educational institutions throughout the country were (or are) prepared to expeditiously and humanely manage this crisis.

What has escaped all but a few conversations are the short and long term implications of this flood of children haphazardly being placed in detention or residential settings, or released to family members, and how it can precipitate a fertile recruiting opportunity for gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, who already have assimilation within this diaspora, putting not only domestic but regional security in question.

Since 2009, the numbers of unaccompanied alien children up to 17 years old, as they are designated by Customs and Border Protection under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, has grown exponentially, with children from Honduras representing the largest diaspora, followed by Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.1 In 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded apprehending 968 Honduran children, compared to the August 31 figure of 17,975. In the same time period, the rate of Guatemalan children jumped from 1,115 in 2009 to 16,528 in 2014, followed by El Salvador with 1,221 apprehended children in 2009 and 15,800 also in the current year of 2014.1

The U.S. Border Patrol sector hardest hit by this flood of children was the Rio Grande Valley Sector1, a wide swathe of southeast Texas encompassing 320 river miles, 250 coastal miles, and 19 counties, equating to over 17,000 square miles.4 It is this eastern route along the Gulf of Mexico that is the most logical, especially for Honduran migrants with the journey starting in Tenosique in Tabasco State on the 1,500 mile journey to the U.S. border.5 It is also among the most dangerous, with an untold number dying before they even make it to the U.S. side. In 2010, at the beginning of a major surge in Central American migration north, 72 migrants were massacred by Los Zetas on a ranch outside the town of San Fernando, Tamualipas State.6 Once the migrants have crossed into the U.S., their fate is no less tenuous. The Rio Grande Valley Sector has seen a marked increase in U.S. Border Patrol-reported deaths, while the Tucson Sector is seeing its fatalities drop.7 In 2010, the Rio Grande Valley Sector reported 29 deaths. That number has increased to a remarkable 156 by the end of FY 2013. In contrast, Tucson Sector reported 251 deaths in 2010 and 194 in 2013.

FEMA was tasked with finding emergency housing for these children in a quantity that exceeded the capabilities of existing Health and Human Services, which is responsible for alien children facilities around the country. By the middle of the summer, the Department of Health and Human Services said children had been placed in every state where there was believed to be a parent, relative, or family friend able and willing to take them in while they are in the deportation process. Some estimates suggest that these children will not even have a first hearing for more than a year, possibly a year and a half. At that point the likelihood of them even appearing before the judge is remote. The states with the largest numbers of children reportedly placed were, Texas: 4,280; New York: 3,347; Florida: 3,181; California: 3,150; and, Virginia: 2,2348 Incidentally, these are already hotbeds of MS-13 activity.

While the current humanitarian crisis is daunting, it is not the first large influx of Central Americans into the U.S. During the 13-year civil war in El Salvador that ran between 1979-1992, approximately 334,000 reported entering the U.S. between 1985 and 1990, compared to a reported 45,000 between 1970 and 19749 bringing the current crisis on par with this last flood of people fleeing Central America. Out of this migration came the creation of MS-13 on the streets of Los Angeles. With many of the founding members devoid of U.S. citizenship, they were deported back to El Salvador, where the climate of virtual lawlessness allowed the group to flourish and evolve into the violent transnational criminal organization it is today. MS-13 elements returned to El Salvador and Honduras and actively pursued new members, whether through intimidation, protection, or an option for self-preservation against the other gangs roaming the country, especially the streets of Chaelecon, the most dangerous of barrios in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which is now considered by some the deadliest city in the world.10

Currently, there is a litany of reasons given for the surge of migration this year. The U.S. government has inexplicably advertised benefits available for illegal aliens in the USA11 Also, according to the United Nations Global Study on Homicide 2013, which reflects 2012 murders, Honduras topped the list as the country with the highest murder rate in the world with 90.4 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. El Salvador was fourth with 41.2 murders per 100,000, behind Venezuela, 53.7, and Belize, 44.7. Guatemala ranked fifth with 39.8 per 100,000.12 A 2009 military coup in Honduras left the country in a greater state of instability, with gangs such as MS-13 filling the void or replacing law enforcement services.13 Additional reasons cited for the mass exodus of children from Central America are family reunification, poverty and fear of violence from local criminal organizations.13 The focused demographic of children represented in the explosion of immigration rather than all ages and recent persistent rumors of pending immigration amnesty suggest additional possible motivations for families sending children illegally to the United States.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikoske made a naively optimistic statement about efforts being made by the U.S State Department and the White House to reach out to the feeder Central American nations to address the reasons why their citizens are fleeing. "They hope to address the conditions in Central America that are spurring the migration and ways that we can together assure faster, secure repatriation of these children and families." Kerlikowske said.1 The likelihood of any immediate remedies is remote because the U.S. government has been well aware of these conditions since the civil war raged more than 25 years ago.

With this said, the question can’t be ignored whether history will repeat itself with the risk factor of gang and transnational criminal organization affiliation of even a small percentage of these children, which would be a boon to MS-13 operations; the necessary ingredients exist. These children undoubtedly have, and will have for some time, language barriers. Despite the good intentions of even the most sincere family member or friend, domestic instability will exist. There will very likely be a lack of supervision, since whoever is tasked with supervising the children will likely need to work. There will be the social alienation of being immersed in a new society and culture and the concurrent needs of group unity, cultural or ethnic association, protection, and the already inherent exposure to violence and criminal activity they were confronted with in their home countries.

"The recent surge certainly has a potential to increase MS-13’s ability to recruit and or exploit, through human trafficking, extortions, and other crimes, the individuals migrating to the United States," said Robert Bornstein, Unit Chief Safe Streets and Gang Unit Criminal Investigative Division, FBI.14

Despite a series of MS-13 raids and subsequent arrests, the gang has moved towards more suburban and rural areas, presenting a challenge to local law enforcement agencies. "The migration of MS-13 members and other Hispanic street gang members, such as 18th Street, from Southern California to other regions of this country has led to a rapid proliferation of these gangs in many smaller, suburban, and rural areas not accustomed to gang activity and related crimes." Chris Swecker, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division for the FBI told the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere House International Relations Committee in 2005. "Additionally, the deportation of MS-13 and 18th Street gang members from the United States to their countries of origin is partially responsible for the growth of those gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, although the precise of this responsibility is unknown."15

Swecker went on to say, and there is little evidence that indicates circumstances have changed for MS-13 over the past nine years, that based upon the National Gang Threat Assessment conducted by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association, MS-13 members and associates now have a presence in more than 31 states and the District of Columbia. MS-13 has a significant presence in Northern Virginia, New York, California, Texas, as well as in places as disparate and widespread as Oregon City, Oregon, and Omaha, Nebraska.14 When we see the overlap of states where children have recently been placed by DHS—California, Texas, and Virginia—the risk for recruiting increases exponentially. With a conservative projected influx of 90,000 unaccompanied Central American children into the U.S. by the end of FY2014, it would be hard to imagine MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang wouldn’t be actively recruiting, let alone not already incorporated into the current diaspora.

After the large-scale deportations of MS-13 back to El Salvador and Honduras began in the early 1990s , the gangs took advantage of the opportunity to explore new opportunities there and recruit among the disenfranchised youth. By 2005, gangs in El Salvador swelled to 10,000 “hard core” members and 20,000 “associates.” In Honduras, the picture was even more disturbing, with an estimated gang population of 40,000.16

It didn’t take long for MS-13 to establish a foothold in Mexico that eventually extended from the southern state of Chiapas along the eastern coast to Tamaulipas, and develop relations with Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. As recently as May 2014, three MS-13 members were sent from Los Angeles to the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area to exact revenge for the Sinaloa MDTO for 30 pounds of stolen methamphetamine.17 But it is the geographic infiltration into Mexico that makes MS-13 a logical cohort for Los Zetas. A 2012 report indicated a budding partnership between MS-13 and Los Zetas in Guatemala, where the paramilitary MDTO has trained MS-13 members in small unit tactics and equipment with MS-13 providing intelligence and contract crimes.18

If there is any question whether MS-13 has infiltrated new blood during this youth surge across the southwest border, a comment made to a journalist from by a U.S. Border Patrol agent is indicative of the virulent threats being posed under the guise of humanitarianism. "We have six minors in Nogales who have admitted to killing and doing grievous bodily injuries. One admitted to killing as young as eight years old," said the agent, who requested anonymity.19 Despite the youth’s admission, the agent said he is waiting to be placed.

While the majority of children might be here to be reunited with family or escape violence, the threat cannot be ignored that MS-13 will likely flourish in this era of illegal Central American immigrants. Law enforcement agents in the majority of cities where MS-13 has a foothold already know they are there however the question comes into play whether there are existing resources to mitigate or thwart recruiting efforts as well as the concurrent crime that will be likely. Schools and social services will be doing all they can do just to accommodate the new arrivals. As far north as Long Island, where more than 2,200 school-aged children were placed over the summer, school districts scrambled to develop educational accommodations and the money to pay for it. One of the most daunting issues, besides money, is English instruction. The cost to educate these new arrivals is expected to tip the scales at $761.4 million.20 One Long Island administrator did recognize the plethora of issues these children are facing. "The challenge is not only dealing with the academics but also the socio-economic piece", said Terri Brady-Mendez, program director for ESL Bilingual Programs at Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "These kids are bringing an enormous amount of experience that probably won’t help them in their concentration. I am sure that we will need some sort of support network set up, including bilingual councilors and other staff".20

Pursuant to the historical data from 20 years ago and the proliferation of MS-13 as one of the most violent TCOs in the world, it is urgent that federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel, citizens, and all governmental institutions begin to recognize the threat of MS-13 recruiting efforts and create an environment for any of these children not returned to their home nations that might keep them from falling under the influence of these violent groups.


Mr. Kolb is the founder of the Border Security Studies program at Western New Mexico University, where he teaches Border Security, Homeland Security, Transnational Criminal Organizations, and Trends in Terrorism. He is also a research associate professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico.

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